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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Georgia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Georgia, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566d825b.html [accessed 18 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Many in the news media had high hopes that this South Caucasus nation would pursue a path of greater press freedom due to the instrumental role that journalists played in the "Rose Revolution," which swept President Eduard Shevardnadze and his corruption-riddled Cabinet out of office in November 2003. The independent television station Rustavi-2 was particularly important, broadcasting opposition protests and giving airtime to government critics.

A year after the euphoria, many journalists said they were disappointed. Television news coverage usually follows the lead of the new government of Mikhail Saakashvili, the reformist National Movement leader who won the January presidential election with a record 96 percent of the vote. The government, claiming it was cracking down on corruption, shuttered one television station and raided a newspaper. Outspoken voices and diverse views grew rarer as television news and talk shows gave way to entertainment programming.

Only a month after Saakashvili and his coalition government came to power, Rustavi-2 canceled the political talk show "Nochnoi Kurier" (Night Courier), which had been on the air since 1998. Director Erosi Kitsmarishvili said the program needed to be revamped to compete in the new media market, but "Nochnoi Kurier" did not return in any form. Political talk shows on other leading television stations – including state television and the independent channels Imedi and Mze – were also taken off the air, with executives citing the need to restructure programs to fit post-revolution realities.

While no overt government pressure was reported in the programming changes, media analysts and opposition-party members were dismayed at the disappearance of television talk shows and feared that it might have been due to indirect political and financial influences. Rustavi-2's main creditor, for example, is the state. When the government agreed to postpone Rustavi-2's 2004 debt payments, it helped keep the station on the air.

Journalists were heartened by Parliament's approval in June of a new media law that decriminalizes libel and makes it subject to civil action only, the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists (IAGJ) reported. Parliament also loosened provisions on disclosing state secrets: The source who discloses a secret, not the journalist, will be held responsible under the new law. The reforms, scheduled to take effect in 2005, are considered notable improvements.

The Saakashvili government launched an aggressive clampdown on business and political corruption, gaining popular support with high-profile arrests of the former railway head and the ex-ministers of energy and transportation. But in some cases the government used the corruption crackdown to block the work of independent and opposition media outlets, according to IAGJ.

Financial police raided the offices of The Georgian Times, an English-language weekly that had published a series of articles questioning how Tbilisi's chief prosecutor, Valery Grigalashvili, had acquired certain assets. Staff members and analysts suspect political motives for the police probe. Shortly before the July raid, Grigalashvili warned Publisher Nana Gagua that he was going to collect "operational information" on the newspaper. Police used the same terminology to describe the reason for their raid, telling the staff they had "operational information" about potential financial crimes at the newspaper. The newspaper continued to publish, and no charges were filed against its staff.

The government also obstructed the opposition television station Iberiya, which is owned by the corporate giant Omega, a cigarette trader that had close ties to former Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Analysts suggest the station's troubles appeared to follow those of its political patron, Abashidze, who left office in 2004.

After Prosecutor General Irakli Okruashvili ordered a raid against Omega in February during a tax-evasion probe, authorities suspended Iberiya for four months, according to IAGJ Chairman Zviad Pochkhua. When the station went back on the air, its format was drastically changed from predominantly news to feature films, according to local press reports. The raid and its effect on Iberiya "raise serious concerns" about free expression, Georgian Ombudsman Teimuzad Lombadze said in an interview with the New York-based Web site Eurasianet.org. The independent ombudsman serves as an intermediary between citizens and the government.

Saakashvili's administration faced escalating tensions in early 2004 in Ajaria, Georgia's semi-independent enclave on the Black Sea. A defiant Abashidze tardily and reluctantly recognized Saakashvili and then acquiesced to March parliamentary elections only after international pressure. By May, his public support in Ajaria having eroded, Abashidze fled to Moscow.

In the months preceding Abashidze's departure, the IAGJ documented at least a dozen assaults against journalists covering the turmoil in Ajaria. Vakhtang Komakhidze, a reporter for the "60 Minutes" investigative program on Rustavi-2, was stopped by transit police in the principal city of Batumi in March and forced out of his car by men in black uniforms who beat him and stole his camera, tapes, and various documents. Komakhidze had just spent two weeks in Ajaria reporting on alleged corruption involving Abashidze and his family. According to IAGJ, no significant progress was reported in Komakhidze's case or in any of the other beatings.

Despite the new government's expressed commitment to pluralism and democracy, its efforts to centralize power have raised concerns among local and international observers. Parliament passed constitutional amendments in February giving the president direct authority to appoint the most powerful Cabinet ministers and to dissolve Parliament if it repeatedly rejects other Cabinet nominees.


2004 Documented Cases – Georgia

MARCH 5, 2004
Posted: March 5, 2004

Vakhtang Komakhidze, Rustavi-2
ATTACKED

Komakhidze, a reporter for the well-respected "60 Minutes" investigative journalism program on independent television station Rustavi-2, was brutally attacked in the autonomous republic of Ajaria in southern Georgia.

According to Akaki Gogichaishvili, the host of "60 Minutes," Komakhidze had spent the last two weeks reporting in Ajaria and was working on an exposé about allegations of corruption by Ajaria's regional leader, Aslan Abashidze, and his family.

As Komakhidze was driving out of the Ajarian city of Batumi, transit police stopped him at a check point, said local reports. Several unidentified men in black uniforms forced Komakhidze out of his car and began to beat him. The men also took the journalist's video camera, tapes, and various documents. He was hospitalized in Batumi with serious injuries.

Gogichaishvili and his Rustavi-2 colleagues believe that the men were with an Ajarian special task unit.

Komakhidze was traveling with a local Batumi newspaper journalist, Mzia Amaghloberli, who was not harmed. Both she and Komakhidze said the transit police did nothing to prevent the beating, said the Moscow-based Russian private television channel, NTV.

APRIL 30, 2004
Posted: May 4, 2004

Alexi Tvaradze, Rustavi-2
Eteri Turadze, Batumelebi
Lela Dumbadze, Batumelebi
Natia Zoidze, Inter Press
ATTACKED

According to Tvaradze, a cameraman with the independent television station Rustavi-2, several police officers beat him with clubs and confiscated a tape containing his footage of an opposition demonstration in the city of Batumi, in the autonomous republic of Ajaria in southern Georgia. One of the officers tried to take his camera, "but I didn't let him," Tvaradze told CPJ. Tvaradze was not seriously injured during the incident and is back on the job.

Ajarian police also beat Turadze and Dumbadze, editor and reporter, respectively, with the Ajarian weekly Batumelebi; and Zoidze, a special correspondent with the news agency Inter Press, according to Internews, an international nongovernmental media organization. CPJ could not confirm the extent of these journalists' injuries.

Local Georgian media reported that several hundred demonstrators participated in the rally in downtown Batumi, which was organized by the opposition movement Our Ajaria. The participants demanded the release of political prisoners held in Ajarian prisons on the orders of Ajaria's regional leader, Aslan Abashidze.

In early March, Ajarian special forces attacked Vakhstang Komakhidze, a reporter with Rustavi-2's investigative news program "60 Minutes," at a checkpoint on his way out of Batumi after he had reported for two weeks on allegations of corruption by Abashidze and his family.

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